While SF Cooking School pastry students don’t typically focus on gluten free baking, we do recognize the importance of why the modern day pastry chef needs to have a few gluten free friendly recipes and techniques in her repertoire. That’s why each semester we invite Jeff Larsen into our kitchen for a special workshop on the topic. Jeff specializes in allergen-free cooking and baking, and in addition to being a fantastic instructor, he’s also a seasoned food stylist, recipe developer, and pastry chef.

Jeff’s allergen-free journey started over 13 years ago when he began developing recipes for his gluten and dairy intolerant mother. Jeff recalls, “We had many failures in the beginning, and it was really discouraging, but we persevered and started to figure it out. I actually started to love the challenge of creating adaptations for our favorite recipes. I loved that I was finding this whole treasure chest full of flours that I never knew about.”

It is this spirit of experimentation and discovery that is at the heart of this lesson — not just how to make a favorite recipe gluten free.

As pastry chef instructor Nicole Plue says, “The errors and faltering — that’s how you learn. That’s where the good stuff happens.”

And trust us, there were plenty of failures, countless iterations, and problem solving as each student tackled their recipe adaptations. Structure, crumb, moisture, flavor, chew…these were all things to consider as they chose their flour substitutions and called upon some of the new techniques they learned from Jeff.

For many, accidents and failures led to new discoveries. Christina, for example, sought to replicate her family’s almond biscotti recipe, but what started out as one idea turned into something unexpected and completely different, but delicious in its own right. Subbing almond flour and oat flour for all-purpose, her dough spread much more than normal, but developed a browned crunchy outside with a chewy inside. So Christina decided to under-bake the cookie, cut them into squares, and voila! Chewy almond bars were born.

“I think the biggest take away for me was that if things aren’t going exactly as planned, it’s okay, just readjust and go with it! (Life lesson?!). I’m not gluten free and to be honest I have never set out to make anything specifically gluten free before, however, what is really important to me about this particular exercise is what Chef Nicole reminded us — the food industry is all about hospitality, so if a customer wants a gluten free dessert, I want to be able to do that for them, and I want it to be delicious!”

Indeed, some of the students’ gluten free experiments were in fact delicious! We couldn’t get enough of Lori’s triple ginger cookies. Her success came after three iterations, and she’s still looking to tweak it a bit more for extra chewiness. Here were some of Lori’s takeaways:

“I learned to cut the recipe down to the smallest possible batch in order to avoid wasting ingredients on experimental batches that might not work out. It’s also important to understand how different ingredients and mixing methods contribute to the texture in a recipe so that you can skillfully manipulate them to get the desired result. For example, I learned that melting the butter and mixing it gently in with the sugars and other ingredients was what produced the soft, chewy texture I was looking for in the GF cookie — using the creaming method with solid butter produced a much firmer cookie. I am also inspired to use alternative flours (whether gluten free or not) to add interesting flavors into some of my favorite recipes.”

Lori’s Gluten Free Triple Ginger Cookies

Soft and chewy, with a big kick of ginger, these cookies are so good you’d never guess they’re gluten free!

3 cups oat flour
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon cayenne (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup melted butter
2 tablespoons mild molasses (or 1 tablespoon blackstrap molasses and 1 tablespoon golden syrup)
2 eggs
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1 cup chopped crystallized ginger
Extra sugar for coating the dough balls

Mix all ingredients together except the oat flour and crystallized ginger until blended. Stir in the flour until no longer visible, then beat with a wooden spoon about 40 strokes to give the dough a bit of aeration. Stir in the crystallized ginger. The dough will be very soft.

Refrigerate the dough for at least one hour, or preferably overnight. Roll the dough into 1-inch balls, then roll in sugar and place two inches apart on parchment-lined cookie sheets. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 10–12 minutes or until the cookie is crisp on the edges but still soft and moist in the center. Cookies should be underbaked slightly for the best texture.

If you’re inspired to do some experimenting yourself, here are Jeff’s Top 3 Lessons on Gluten Free Baking:

1. Weighing the flours in absolutely essential. Allergen free baking requires multiple flours to achieve the appropriate structure. When weighing the flours with volume instead of weight, the results vary wildly. I encourage people to find recipes from reputable sources where the ingredients are given in weight. For pastry professionals, I think that it is crucial to learn how to develop their own personalized blend of flours that will become their signature as a chef. It is based on their palette and their individual tastes. Just as a savory chef defines his or her style with the ingredients they are drawn to.

2. Protein levels — So much of baking requires a good amount of protein for structure. Especially when the gluten is not there, the structure needs to be looked after in other ways. In my class I talk a lot about protein levels. I ask the students to develop their recipes around flours that are mild in flavor and contain a high amount of protein. My favorites are oat flour, sorghum flour and millet flour.

3. Gluten replacement — When gluten is taken out of the equation, something needs to be added in to replace the elasticity and chew of the baked goods. Plant cellulose is the best way to accomplish this. These include xanthum gum, quar gum, flax seed powder, chia seed powder and psyllium husk powder. The tendency is to overuse these ingredients in an effort to get the recognized texture that we know from regular wheat flour baking. I think that many of the gluten free baking mixes that are on the market are guilty of this. The mixes are devised for ease of use for everything from crepes to breadsticks. The spectrum is too great for everything to work well. That’s why it’s so important to understand how different plant cellulose powders interact with other ingredients and which ones work best for the baked good you are developing. Understanding these techniques is no more complex than understanding the techniques of regular, or traditional baking.

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